We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. A.W. Tozer
Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth. --Basil of Caesarea
Once you learn to discern, there's no going back. You will begin to spot the lie everywhere it appears.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service. 1 Timothy 1:12

Monday, February 1, 2016

History of the Church of Christ

Due to a request by two of my readers I am posting this history of the Church of Christ.  I wrote this as a section of an introductory apologetics course for home-school high schoolers. I previously posted, also from this section, an article about the cultic doctrines of the Church of Christ.  This history is, by necessity of brevity, not an in-depth examination.  I hope you find it interesting as well as informative.  (One bit of editing from my course is my usual tradition on this blog of using blue for quotations so as to bring attention to them as not being my writing.)


Another group emerging from the restoration movement of the early 1800s, and in fact considered a central core of the movement, were the churches established by Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell.  As a matter of fact, in the same way Calvinist churches have claimed the title of being “Reformed” churches, even though other groups were involved in the Reformation, the Stone-Campbell-Scott churches of today claim the title of being “Restoration” churches for themselves, even though other churches came out of that movement. (This group should not be confused with the United Church of Christ, which originated as a merger of four other groups in the 20th century - and is now one of the most liberal church denominations.)

Stone, Scott and the Campbells started individual movements which merged based on their common beliefs.  “The major development of this movement occurred between 1823 and the deaths of its founders (Barton Stone, 1844; Walter Scott, 1861; and Alexander Campbell, 1866).”  (Craig Branch, “The Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement,” Areopagus Journal, Vol. 9, No.5, p.9)  As with the LDS and SDA, the premise of this movement was that the church was in total apostasy and needed restoration.

A common name for the members of these churches used by detractors is ‘Campbellites.’  Criticism from evangelicals regarding most of these churches is certainly justified because they have perpetuated a ‘different gospel’ (Gal. 1:6-9) and numerous other heresies.  Among their errors is their belief that all other churches, even evangelicals, are false or apostate.” (Branch, p. 9)

The movement got its start with Barton Stone, a Presbyterian minister who struggled with Calvinist doctrines and with the doctrine of the Trinity.  He was ordained in 1798, and in 1801 traveled to Cane Ridge, KY to witness a revival, and where he participated with Baptists and Methodists.  That August, after spending the previous two months organizing revivals, Stone held what was later called the “Cane Ridge Meeting,” which supposedly claimed thousands of conversions.
Stone left the Presbytery in 1803, and was later baptized by immersion “for the forgiveness of sins.”  “He led a group of Presbyterians out of their denomination to pursue the ideal of being ‘Christians only.’  This idea appealed to many in other churches and a movement began.”  (Branch, p. 10-11)

A few years later Thomas Campbell, also a Presbyterian minister, came to Pennsylvania from Ireland and preached the unity of all Christians.  His son Alexander soon joined him and ended up being an itinerant preacher in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.  The Campbells said to do away with the early church creeds and have nothing in the church older than the New Testament.  Since infant baptism was one of the things added to the church, the Campbells were re-baptized by immersion in 1812.
The Campbells met with Stone in 1824 and they learned each other had the same general ideas of doctrine.  In 1831 most of Stone’s followers joined the Campbellites.

Walter Scott was also raised as a Presbyterian, “but upon arriving in New York from Scotland, he became influenced by George Forrester.”  (Branch, p.11)  Forrester was among a Scottish group seeking to “restore” the New Testament church.  In 1821, Scott “came to believe that baptism was not merely an ordinance or ritual, but a decision of the penitent to release God to wash away our sins - a formal remission.”  (Branch, p.11)

The Campbells met with Scott in 1821.  Five years later Scott attended a Campbellite meeting, and the following year the Campbells asked Scott to be their evangelist.  Scott’s preaching eventually brought in more than 3000 converts over the next few years.

The Campbellites adopted the name “Disciples of Christ” for their congregation.  Stone’s group were known as “Christians,” or “Christian Church.”  The two merging groups, Campbells’ and Stone’s, used either name for their churches.  In 1832 Scott’s group joined both the Campbellite and Stone communities, although about half of Stone’s group didn’t agree with Campbellite teachings on baptismal regeneration and did not join with them. 

The Campbells desired to see a unity of the various denominations based around the Scripture, and to eliminate all man-made creeds.  Their motto was, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”  

An early cause of division was the doctrine of the Trinity.  Barton Stone determined the doctrine was man-made, and that the Holy Spirit was “the power of force of God.”  “This legacy has had an impact on many Churches of Christ today.  It is not unusual to encounter members who basically hold a view that the Holy Spirit and the Bible are inseparably linked.  The only time the Holy Spirit is present is when the Bible is opened and read.  It is almost like a genie in the bottle.  When the Bible is closed, the Holy Spirit returns to the Bible.”  (Branch, p.12)

The influence of “higher criticism” and other liberal teachings affected the “Restoration” churches in the same way it affected other Protestant churches, causing division among the assemblies.  The more liberal group wanted to use instrumental music in worship and allow missionary societies, and were subscribing to theistic evolution, among other issues.  In 1906 the conservative dissenters formed the “Churches of Christ,” while the “progressives” became known as “Disciples of Christ.”  

The Disciples began emphasizing denominational authority over local autonomy, and became increasingly liberal in their theology and practice, so in 1927 the more conservative members of the Disciples separated to form the North American Christian Convention, a separate fellowship of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches.  “The new convention was not to be a policy-making assembly that had authority over the local churches, but rather was a gathering for preaching, teaching, and good fellowship.  The new convention took a strong stand against all forms of liberalism and sought to defend fundamentalist beliefs.”  (Ron Rhodes, The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations, p. 119)

The Disciples of Christ organized in 1968 as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  While still holding to some of the legalistic teachings of the Restoration movement, the Disciples are more orthodox, albeit with some liberal understandings of Scripture and Christ, and we will follow them no further.

The current churches continuing the Stone-Campbell-Scott “Restoration Movement” usually go by the names “Christian Church” or “Church of Christ.”  This can be confusing because the Churches of Christ which formed in 1906 is not the same as the North American Convention branch known as Churches of Christ and Christian Churches.  The Churches of Christ of the 1906 separation have no conventions, no denomination headquarters, no conferences, etc.  Nevertheless, the ancestry of both groups is the same prior to 1906, with few differences in doctrine, and since 2006 there has been a move to reunite these two groups.  Our main focus in this section, however, is only on the Church of Christ.

A significant split is the International Church of Christ, which is a cult sect.  This sect originated with Chuck Lucas, pastor of the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, FL in 1967.  Lucas saw that aggressive evangelistic groups like Campus Crusade, and discipleship groups like the Navigators, had great success, so he combined the ideas of both with the legalistic practices of the Church of Christ and his church began to grow.  “One of Lucas’s leaders was Kip McKean… In 1975 McKean and his wife, Elena, moved to a suburb of Boston and began a very aggressive and demanding program.  It was named the Boston Church of Christ.  The traditional Church of Christ legalism coupled with the high demand, close accountability structure and use of guilt and manipulation, produced an abusive, mind and life controlling cult.  After its first ten years of existence, the Boston Church of Christ with its church plants and world missions numbered 25,000 members.  Their primary focus was on college campuses.”  (Branch, p. 13)  Since most of the traditional Churches of Christ condemned McKean and his movement, McKean broke off association with them in 1993 and changed the name of his group to the International Church of Christ.  This cult itself has broken into factions and McKean left the leadership of the original group in 2001 only to later start up another group in California under the same name in 2007.  Since this cult group is not recognized by the Churches of Christ, we will not study this group any further.

A current description of the Churches of Christ is this one found on the Internet:  “Following the plan of organization found in the New Testament, churches of Christ are autonomous.  Their common faith in the Bible and adherence to its teachings are the chief ties which bind them together.  There is no central headquarters of the church, and no organization superior to the elders of each local congregation.  Congregations do cooperate voluntarily in supporting the orphans and the aged, in preaching the gospel in new fields, and in other similar works.  Members of the church of Christ conduct forty colleges and secondary schools, as well as seventy-five orphanages and homes for the aged.  There are approximately 40 magazines and other periodicals published by individual members of the church.  A nationwide radio and television program, known as "The Herald of Truth" is sponsored by the Highland Avenue church in Abilene, Texas.  Much of its annual budget of $1,200,000 is contributed on a free-will basis by other churches of Christ. The radio program is currently heard on more than 800 radio stations, while the television program is now appearing on more than 150 stations.  Another extensive radio effort known as "World Radio" owns a network of 28 stations in Brazil alone, and is operating effectively in the United States and a number of other foreign countries, and is being produced in 14 languages. An extensive advertising program in leading national magazines began in November 1955.”  (Batsell Barrett Baxter, Who are the churches of Christ and what do they believe in? )

Craig Branch sums up the problem with the Churches of Christ: The various Stone-Campbell-Scott Movement churches (denominations) exist all over the U.S. and in many foreign countries, with members totaling between three and four million.  A large majority of these members have embraced a false, legalistic gospel and are deceiving many others.  Fortunately, there have been some positive developments in recent years including the recent conversion of some Churches of Christ into the evangelical mainstream… Also there is a group of Restoration Movement pastors and teachers at their numerous Bible colleges who have recently formed a subgroup within the Evangelical Theological Society and continue to interact with evangelical scholars.”  (p.10)


Alec said...

Fascinating history, Glenn. Thank you for posting.

You answered a question I have had for many years. One of my dearest Christian friends, now long departed, grew up in West Virgina prior to WWII. She told me many stories of her early life and of the little church they attended. It's only name was "The Christian Church".

Blah said...

We go to a Church of Christ church and it's the best church around for miles. In fact we drive to another town 30 mins away so we can attend. It has Christ centred worship and expository preaching. But we don't live in the US. Church of Christ is now such a dodgy name - I wish our church would change it!

Glenn E. Chatfield said...


So you are saying that your church isn't part of the CoC as discussed in this history?